We’ve reached a moment in this city where exciting food and beverage concept openings have become a regular occurrence, built around justifiable hype and expectations. We are kind of spoiled in a sense; the creativity and types of spaces being created are only limited by an entrepreneur’s imagination. Amidst this culinary expansion, one unique organization, Hatch Kitchen, has made a commitment to ensuring Richmond’s hospitality businesses succeed. As an incubator focused on supporting the growth and development of businesses in the industry since its opening in January of 2019, Hatch Kitchen has remained true to their mission: “To inspire innovation, enable growth, and promote community within the food and beverage industry.” They are more than just a commercial kitchen space; they empower startups and existing businesses with comprehensive support in areas such as mentorship, networking, and collaborative opportunities. The most recent example of this is their Entrepreneur Empowerment Program, led by Chef Antwon Brinson with Culinary Concepts AB (CCAB), in partnership with Bridging Virginia and Capital One. The program began on August 16th for members of Hatch.
Having recently started the process of becoming Hatch Kitchen members with my family’s business—but yet to begin production there—I was made aware of the program and told we could apply. I jumped at the opportunity and interviewed with Chef Brinson to gain some insight on what the program hoped to achieve. Although the timing of the course schedule didn’t work well for us, I was excited that such a program existed for Richmond’s talented culinary community. Serendipitously, a few weeks later, while chatting with my good friend Anthony Harris about our respective projects, he mentioned RVA Mag was going to cover the program. After expressing how beneficial and instrumental this program could be in supporting Richmond’s culinary creatives—and acknowledging my own skin in the game, so to speak—it naturally came to be that I would do this feature. In turn, I interviewed Chef Antwon to shine a light on what’s cooking out of Hatch Kitchen. Here’s how the conversation went.
ed: note: Both Chef Antwon and Chef Yoseph of The Nile share Ethiopian heritage and expertise in Ethiopian cuisine — and they had met beforehand. So, it was a logical choice to have them engage in a conversation about Chef Antwon’s involvement with Hatch Kitchen. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that in November 2022, Chef Antwon was among the 10 featured chefs in the HBO Max series titled The Big Brunch, where he competed as one of the contestants. The series, hosted by Dan Levy and judged by Sohla El-Waylly and Will Guidara, featured an intense competition over eight episodes, with the winner taking home a substantial cash prize of $300,000. We won’t give away any surprises, but it was a fun series to watch. Hatch and CCAB are celebrating the conclusion of the program with an event at Hatch Local Food Hall on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. It’s open to the public and will include tunes from DJ El Capone.
Yoseph Teklemariam: What’s going on? Good morning.
Antwon Brinson: What’s up, man? Good morning. It’s crazy how the world connects people.
YT: It’s hilarious, right? Just random serendipity.
AB: (Laughs) Seriously, but you know, I love how the stars connect on things. Like, I’m a big believer; if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, you know? So, I love to just see things like this come full circle.
YT: Indeed, man. (Laughing) So, let’s talk shop. Tell the readers a little about yourself. Your background—like how you got into this food business and what you’re doing now?
AB: Yeah, so not taking it too far back, I went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. I did a three-year apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier, opened a restaurant there, and then spent roughly 15 years traveling both nationally and internationally as a chef. How I got into this? Besides cooking, one of my passions has always been building people and teams. I love just watching people grow and, you know, going into an organization and helping them solve problems.
When I first started my career, one of the things I always knew was that I wanted to teach at some point. I thought it would be going back to the school I graduated from. But when I moved to Virginia, a unique opportunity presented itself. I live in Charlottesville, and they have over 500 restaurants in a 10-mile radius. That’s comparable to cities like New York, San Francisco, LA, and DC. It’s very compact, which impacts the labor market. People hop from restaurant to restaurant, focusing on dollar value rather than investing in one property. On the flip side, entrepreneurs are overworked and can’t find or invest the time in people.
So, when I moved to Charlottesville and opened up a club, I noticed right away that there was a big disconnect in the quality of people and their skills. It ranged from those who thought 10 years in the pantry station qualified them to be a chef, to those who genuinely had extensive experience. To address this, I launched Culinary Concepts, which has grown from workforce development training programs to entrepreneurship programs. The underlying message is: How do we empower you on your culinary journey? How do we help you get to the next level?
YT: So, bringing your program to Richmond, how similar or different is it from what you’re doing in Charlottesville?
AB: I would say it’s a different market when it comes to restaurants. The needs of the entrepreneurs in Charlottesville are different from those in Richmond. In Charlottesville, they’re working on developing menus or nailing down recipes. Here in Richmond, it’s more about creating systems for the business and scaling up. It’s just a higher level of thinking with some of the businesses we’re working with here. So, it’s exciting, it’s fun. I get to lean into each business and help them solve problems. It’s a win-win on both sides; I get to pour into them, and I feel fulfilled at the end of the day.
YT: How did it come together here in Richmond? Did Culinary Concepts approach Hatch or did they reach out to you?
AB: Bernard [Bernard Harkless, co-founder of Hatch Richmond] and I, we’ve been friends. He launched his company around the same time that I launched my company. I came to his grand opening, and we hit it off. I was just like, “I love what you’re doing.” I mean, one of the things I’m big on is, how do you create space in your organization to create change? And I love that he created a space for entrepreneurs to be able to grow their concepts. So from the beginning, that synergy was there. We’ve had multiple conversations about where I’m at, where he’s at, pain points, what I’m working on, some of the things he’s got going on. And we’ve always said, like, “Man, we need to find a way to be able to work together.”
YT: It kind of formed organically?
AB: Well, in Charlottesville, we launched our first entrepreneur program in partnership with BEACON, which is a black entrepreneurship empowerment program, through New Hill Corporation, and it was wildly successful. Bernard was like, “You know our businesses really need a program like this.” And me, being the social entrepreneur that I am, I’m like, “It can’t just be about the program; how do we remove barriers for them?” If the businesses are trying to scale, how do we get them connected with someone that can do that? Bernard, with his connections, was able to identify Bridge [Bridging Virginia, a non-profit community loan fund], and Bridge Virginia is freaking amazing. They removed those barriers that banks put in front of you to be able to get a loan. Through this partnership that we have together—this trio, along with Capital One—Bernard is able to help entrepreneurs through Hatch Kitchen. And because they’ve gone through this program, it gives them “street cred,” so to speak, with Bridge Capital. They’re like, “Hey, because you did this program, we’re willing to invest in you.” So, regardless of whether it’s equipment, staffing, or whatever you need to get your business to that next level to scale, Bridge Capital is going to remove those barriers for these businesses, so they can really get to where they need to be.
YT: That’s awesome, man. You know, I’ve been here 17 years now and have really seen the growth of the industry. I even looked for commercial kitchens many years ago with my family when we were looking for support to expand our business, but there was no infrastructure then. There was a commissary kitchen, but nothing like what’s happening now. So, it’s very exciting what’s happening at Hatch, and I became very curious about this pilot program and how it came to be.
AB: There’s a level of empathy that I bring to the table. I’m passionate because I come from the industry, and I know the pain points firsthand. So for me, it’s not just about giving you the tools; it’s about how we empower you to use these tools in your business to be able to grow it. Because nobody gets in business to be stagnant. We all get in business because we want to win. And what happens a lot of times is, you’ll do a training program, and it’s like, “Okay, I learned all this great stuff, but what do I do with it?” What I wanted to do with this program is create something that gives you a next step. It allows you to go from, “Alright, I have this information; I’m using these systems in my business. Okay, how do I get the money to be able to implement these systems on a higher level?”
YT: This is geared for folks who have already started out and have a few years under their belt? Kind of guiding people in their business?
AB: Yeah, this particular program is for folks who have experience in business. You’ve had some hardships, you’ve gone through it, your business is rolling, and you really need to figure out what you need to do to stabilize it or get it to the next level. So this is for people who are a little bit further along.
YT: You’re at the midway point now, week three or four, right? How’s it going?
AB: Yeah, this is week four. This week is about costing, so we’ve dived into understanding the cost of your business. You know, they have spreadsheets they’re working off of to really dive into their numbers. There’s so much anxiety attached to numbers in the restaurant industry because most chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs don’t have time to focus on that. They focus on the food. Looking at the numbers is often a “I’ll get to that later” scenario. But if you’re not controlling where that money’s going, you’re going to lose a lot. Yesterday was a breakthrough for some people, who realized where they were at. But the beautiful thing about this week is that it gives you an opportunity to acknowledge where you are and change course now, rather than two, three years down the road.
YT: As a pilot program, how’s the response been with participants and how are you feeling about it right now?
AB: I believe feedback is a gift. I’m constantly asking the students, “Was this valuable to you? Are you implementing what we taught?” Every class includes time for reflection and working on their business. One of the students told me this is life-changing for them. I don’t do this for me; talk to the students and get their perspective. I think it gives you a stronger understanding of the impact programs like this can make.
I got a chance to talk to one of the participants, Lance Lemon, co-owner of Penny’s Wine Shop. He said, “A lot of the tangible things we really took away from it include ‘systems and processes.’ Chef Antwon teaches that everything has a system. Once you put the systems into place, you set expectations as leaders, and managing and leading comes down to those expectations. It’s also about organizational skills and time management.”
YT: I’m excited to see how this goes and how it continues to grow. A lot of businesses can really benefit; some might be feeling burnt out with these recent years and just need this support.
AB: Yeah, man, I said this to one of the students yesterday: “You are a workhorse! With or without me, you’re going to go in a direction.” Sometimes people just need direction, a roadmap. They have all these ideas but don’t know how to organize them. That’s called strategy. What’s your mission? What’s your vision? Let’s create a strategy around that.
YT: Anything else you want to share about the program or anything?
AB: I just want to put it out there that this is the first pilot. We’re looking to do many more going into 2024. If you feel like this is a program for your business, reach out. We’d love to get you on an intake and can get you on that waiting list.
For more information about Chef Antwon and his organization, link to the CCAB website HERE! I also suggest folks check out Hatch in all its varied offerings. Whether you’re supporting vendors at their food hall at Hatch Local, or if you’ve got a business that needs space to grow your concept, get a tour of Hatch Kitchen.